Review of Simon Schama – The Story of the Jews 2: Among Believers

Lincoln Green

Image © Michael D Beckwith

Holidaymakers towing caravans towards the Lincolnshire coast via the A46 will notice Lincoln Cathedral at a high point to their right.  The image, in bright sunlight or possibly glowing in the dark, will mean different things to different people.  Simon Schama’s account of the Jews in medieval times under Christian and Islamic rule, first broadcast on BBC Two on 8 Sep 2013, will change perceptions of that building and its art in a manner suggested by Schama’s Landscape and Memory (1995).  In this earlier work he discusses the interrelationships between culture and landscape, how the one informs and is a reinterpretation of the other. The TV programme, which is still available on BBC iPlayer, promotes reinterpretation through Schama’s identification of the less emphasised and indeed misrepresented impact of Jews on life in medieval Lincoln.

Schama points out the Jewish focus on text and its analysis.  The destruction of the High Temple in Jerusalem during Roman occupation of Palestine removed a central point from which tradition could be affirmed.  The displacement of Jews from Judaea led to a mobile encapsulation of codes regarding how to be Jewish, despite variations in location and indeed race.  Written texts such as the Torah (the narrative of Jewish Foundation, familiar to Christians as Books of the Old Testament), and the Mishnah (scribed versions of oral commentaries and subsequent centuries old debates on topics connected with Jewish culture) provided a portable guide and codification of Jewishness.  The effects of such a powerful literary focus, whilst holding together the Jewish diaspora by establishing rules for living, have also stimulated what one of Schama’s contributors terms the “argumentative nature of the race”, its enthusiasm for debate, and also perhaps its reputation for scholarly, analytical and intellectual strands of engagement.

Schama emphasises the breadth of craft and livelihood available to the Jews despite host nation delimitation.  Yet competence, particularly in commerce, due in part to the strands of community which extended across much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, developed wealth and caused subsequent resentment.  Particularly when associated with or ascribed to religious differences – Jewish perceptions of the end of the age of prophets contrasted with both Christian views of the divinity of Jesus and Islamic assertions regarding the Prophet Mohammed – conflicts flared.

Cordoba, once the jewel of Western Europe, an Islamic city of gardens, fountains and containing the Mezquita, the Great Mosque, was a centre of cultural and intellectual life among other trading ports where cross fertilisation of ideas promoted the conditions ultimately leading to a European renaissance.  Conflict between Christian militants, who eventually recaptured Cordoba and Islamic militants from North African tribes eventually caused decline of the city in the thirteenth century.  Despite the apparent success of the Jewish community in this city, discrimination was apparent.  Horse-riding was forbidden, yellow garments were required and weapons proscribed.  A visible and vulnerable opportunity for harassment and assault was apparent.

Similarly in England, despite the financial underwriting of loans for building Lincoln Cathedral (along with Peterborough Cathedral and 10 Cistercian abbeys (ironically where the ethos remains one of simplicity, silence and prayer) by Aaron of Lincoln , probably the wealthiest person in England, the paired qualities of wealth and lack of political power formed a vulnerable mixture.  Schama describes the expulsion of the Jews from England at the end of the thirteenth century. Debts were absolved, reverted to the Crown or lost when relevant paperwork was destroyed.

Such purges followed more overtly ecumenical or doctrinal lines in for example the Barcelona Disputation (1263), a semi-public debate which contrasted orthodox Christian and Jewish views concerning the Messiah.   The debate examined whether or not the Messiah had appeared, whether he was divine or a human being and hence whether Jews or Christians held the true faith.  Ultimately the dominant Christian view was that Jews has no place in the Christian world and that the “Christ-killers” who affirmed “His blood be upon us and on our children” were to convert or die.  This “blood curse” lately subject to Papal re-interpretation has resonated through the ages.  Expulsion of the Jews from Spain followed in the fifteenth century.

The rich cultural life connected with medieval Jewish settlements across the Europe and the Middle East flowered and fell in such recurrent tragedies of hate crimes, fuelled by greed and ignorance.  The Cairo Geniza contained a library of almost 300,000 documents and significantly expanded after resettlement from Spain.  Respect for text, particularly anything inscribed with God’s name, inspired conservation and vividly illustrates medieval life to the modern reader.

Resettlement in Venice led to the origins of the first ghetto, the Ghetto Vecchio, where Schama, in the Spanish synagogue, decribes in emotional terms a refuge of beauty, from which Jewish life can be centred, albeit for perhaps only a few generations.

Schama’s survey of medieval coexistence and conflict is necessarily simplified.  Historical issues are often contested and subject to both personal bias and contextualised interpretation.  His broad sweep emphasises the vitality of Jewish culture and his emotional engagement with this task is never more apparent than at the end of the programme, where both feeling and scholarship co-exist.  His historical lens provides the viewer with an enhanced view of the cultural landscape and its artefacts which discourages complacency and the simple perspective.  Lincoln Cathedral’s 1992 reconsidered presentation of the “Little Hugh” memorial corrects a misrepresentation of a tragic death which is embedded in English folklore.  The iconography of its beautiful stained glass, which includes a representation of terrible foresight, a Jewish child being thrown into a furnace, once noted will never again appear the same.


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